The Emerson String Quartet—violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins—returned to Boston’s Celebrity Series after a short absence. Befitting their farewell concert in the city, the quartet performed a set of old favorites at Jordan Hall.
Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2 started the program. This ruminating work debuted in March 1918, only a few months before the end of the First World War. The fighting thwarted Bartók from recording and transcribing folk melodies in Eastern Europe and North Africa and forced him into a period of relative isolation, mirroring his final years as an émigré in New York. These historical and biographical contexts leave the quartet open to an endless array of possible interpretations. Yet, as Drucker’s insightful program notes describe, it’s unlikely that Bartók expected listeners to read any programmatic meaning into the work itself. Still, in Drucker’s words, the quartet “must be seen as a borderline between two eras,” both in Bartók’s compositional style and in European history, with violence as its immediate context.
Despite Bartók’s forced pause in pursuing his proto-ethnomusicological research, traces of folk melodies abound, both in the composer’s signature gentle dissonance, as well as in the complicated rhythmic patterns underlying much of the work. One might also see folk influences in the composer’s complicated technique of unspooling a quartet’s worth of music from a minuscule amount of material, presented largely in the first few bars of the piece.
The first movement, following the traditional procedures of sonata form, an unusual choice for the composer, pits a lilting primary theme against a related secondary theme. Bartók regularly asks the quartet to play homorhythmically, offering potential challenges that the Emersons met with aplomb. The movement ends mysteriously with a solitary motif in the higher reaches of the cello, played lyrically by Watkins.
The fiery second movement begins with a fierce rhythmic ostinato, setting up what Bartók described as a “quasi-Rondo.” Harmonics, glissandi, double-stops, and other extended techniques abound, offering each quartet member to demonstrate their prestigious technique. The Emersons’ frenzied playing reached a fever-pitch with the closing, unison octaves, leading at least one justifiably excited audience member to clap after the last chord.
The concluding Lento offered an icy complement to the preceding movement. Built on short, thorny, chromatic motifs stretched out as the movement continues, this is some of Bartók’s grimmest chamber music writing. Still, a few rays of sunshine poke through, especially a chorale-like interlude performed here with gravitas. The work ends with two unison pizzicati, which Drucker’s program notes rightly term a “death-knell.”
For a true contrast, the Emersons next played George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Originally a movement of a larger string quartet completed in 1946 while Walker was a student at the Curtis Institute, the Lyric bears some resemblance, particularly in its emotionally charged climax and long denouement, to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, written a decade earlier. Most commonly performed now in an arrangement for string orchestra, the Emersons’ quartet version offered a more intimate, introspective view. Originally titled “Lament” after the death of Walker’s grandmother, gentleness underlies the short piece. The sense of tragedy is never clearer than in the final minute of the Lyric, which the Emersons played with a sincere profundity and depth of expression.
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 12, Op. 133, completed 20 years later, is an unorthodox work for the composer; this work engages with a variety of techniques, particularly 12-tone serialism, that Shostakovich had previously rejected. His experimentation may have been a result of Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev’s relatively lenient cultural policies that reversed Stalinist restrictions on “foreign” styles like serialism. But, as Shostakovich biographer Laurel Fay notes, Shostakovich had tested out 12-tone writing in a handful of earlier works. Either way, Shostakovich never fully commits to a dodecaphonic style, as the general D-flat major tonality attests.
The continual interplay between tonal and atonal elements has provided endless fodder for music theorists, in whose domain this quartet often rests, especially in comparison with well-loved earlier quartets like the eighth and third. Yet the Emersons’ compelling argument for its live performance brought out veiled humor and, at times, even joviality.
In two movements, the quartet displays a full range of emotions; Shostakovich even argued to Dmitriy Tsïganov, a violinist to whom dedicated the work is dedicated, that the quartet was, at heart, “a symphony.” The first movement begins with a clear statement of the tone row, which is developed for the following few minutes. The second movement, startlingly lengthy in comparison with the first, is more recognizably Shostakovichian. Almost a full quartet in itself, the movement is divided into three distinct sections. At first, Shostakovich features his trademark wide-ranging melodies and forceful style before these give way to a haunting middle segment, presenting austere solos punctuated by poignant chorales in the upper strings. The last movement’s opening motif returns to set off a rush to the scorching finish. There is a subtle echo here with the end of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony and its endless repeated high A’s. In this example, repetitive D flats fulfill the same role. Both examples exhibit forced completeness; yet despite their tonal logic, these ostinati feel un-satisfying. Perhaps underneath Shostakovich’s freedom of experimentation loomed the same old threats, or a possible sign of the composer’s increasing age and health problems.
The Emersons then journeyed back nearly two centuries to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8, Op. 59, no. 2. These “Razumovsky” quartets demonstrate substantial development from their predecessors. This one, the second in the set, is in a typical four movements.
The opening Allegro begins with two dramatic E minor chords, setting the stage for a surprising primary theme, replete with lengthy pauses. These chords, or their variants, reappear again and again, providing a sense of unity beyond and above the regular form. The second, slow movement, while beginning in a contemplative manner, meanders across vast territory. Here, through an abnormally active cello part, Watkins contributed an admirable and stable foundation for the rest of the quartet.
In a hint at Prince Razumovsky’s heritage, Beethoven includes “Glory to the Sun,” a Russian folk tune, in the third movement. This tune was utilized later by composers including Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. Yet whereas their treatments of the melody seem largely celebratory or patriotic, Beethoven sets the tune in an unusual, often counterintuitive way that regularly feels off-kilter. This oddity has led several musicologists to posit that Prince Razumovsky may have suggested (or even required) that Beethoven use the folk song, perhaps to the composer’s displeasure, rather than regarding its inclusion here as a sign of Beethoven’s gratitude for his patron. The presto finale movement, with its well-loved theme, starts on the wrong foot (on C major rather than the expected, and eventual, E minor), and Beethoven soon restores a sense normalcy to the proceedings. However, because of the interplay between major and minor modes, the eventual return of E minor at the end has that much more drama. Many performances end with a subtler, more genteel finish than the Emersons’, but it was hard to fault the quartet for their sprightly closing flourish; they had earned it.
After several rounds of applause, the ensemble encored with the seventh of Dvořák’s dozen Cypresses, “I Wander Often Past Yonder House.” Described by Drucker as a “bittersweet,” Dvořák’s melancholy-tinged, emotional melody made for a charming and heartfelt finale to the ensemble’s farewell to Boston.
Setzer had earlier noted that the Emersons have a long history with these works and the concert was their form of “looking back” over their lengthy career. The quartet’s very first performance featured the Bartók, and Op. 59, no. 2 was their first Beethoven quartet. And, per Setzer’s reminiscences quoted in the program notes, the Emersons had intended to play Walker’s Lyric for Strings for the composer a few years ago, before Walker’s death made that interaction impossible. Indeed, the Emersons demonstrated a distinct familiarity and comfort level with these works, yet none felt stale.
This tour-de-force through several milestones in the string quartet repertoire could strike fear into the heart of a budding chamber musician. Yet throughout the nearly two-hour concert, the Emersons offered page after page of virtuosic and sensitive readings, befitting their status as one of this country’s premiere ensembles. Celebrity Series thoughtfully included a listing of every single Emerson concert in Boston—over 25 performances dating back to 1987—and a special note from Executive Director Gary Dunning paid a fitting tribute to this remarkable group. They will be missed.
I had the privilege to view the performance through Celebrity Series’s Digital Concert Pass; the program is available for purchase HERE for $20 until 7:00 PM on January 30.